June 7, 2014 in City

Working for change

Victim’s father campaigns for police crisis training
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Megan Berger, second from left, and her husband Bill, along with family friends, raise their candles in honor of their son Will, during a Friday evening vigil at the site where Will encountered sheriff’s deputies a year ago.
(Full-size photo)

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Feet from where his son Will received the injuries from Spokane County sheriff’s deputies that claimed his life one year ago, Bill Berger called for change Friday night in a Moran Prairie parking lot.

“We need a catalyst,” he said. “Somebody to tell us where we are and what we need to do.”

Berger, who arrived from Port Angeles on Friday with his wife, Megan, plans to bike and drive across the state, leaving with communities’ local law enforcement a survey meant to gauge their crisis intervention readiness. His hope is to make sure police have the training Berger believes would have saved his son’s life, though on advice from legal counsel he declined this week to speak about the altercation.

Will Berger, 34, was shot with a stun gun multiple times and placed in a neck hold intended to restrict blood flow to his head by Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn Audie on June 6, 2013. Deputies had been called after multiple patrons and employees of Oz Fitness, 5501 S. Regal St., reported erratic behavior his father said was consistent with Will Berger’s previous manic episodes.

Berger lost consciousness in the scuffle also witnessed by Deputy Steve Paynter, who was the second to fire his stun gun after Berger ran.

Berger’s heart stopped at the scene. He died early the next morning.

Friend Seth Robertson said Berger, an employee at a local seed company who bought a house in Spokane the day of the incident, was happy.

“He was feeling home, I think,” Robertson said Friday, joining about a dozen friends and family sitting in camping chairs at a candlelight vigil, wearing matching T-shirts that read, “You count, too.”

Jack Driscoll, the Spokane County deputy prosecutor who reviewed the actions of Audie and Paynter to determine if criminal charges will be filed, said this week he had completed his evaluation of the case and turned it over to Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker.

Megan Berger said her son already had bought a wedding gift for his younger brother, who wed in August as planned.

“He should have been there,” said Megan Berger, tears in her eyes and holding a leash belonging to Thurston, a 7-month-old Goldendoodle that Will Berger’s parents bought after his death and named after the street where their son was to live in Spokane.

Patrons at the Moran Prairie gym captured cellphone video of Berger moments before the altercation a year ago. A shirtless Berger can be seen rocking back and forth after punching a paper towel dispenser off the wall. He pushes away a fellow patron, telling him not to touch him, and repeatedly can be heard saying “Uh-oh,” while pointing to other people inside and talking about dying.

Berger’s father said his son took medication to control manic episodes that started when he was 15. In high school, Will Berger took muscle-building Creatine at the direction of his football coach, which ended in a liver infection and aggressive reactions to adrenaline pumping through his body, Bill Berger said.

Before the infection and manic episodes, Will Berger was a straight-A student, his father said. After, he could barely read a page in a comic book. The symptoms reappeared while the younger Berger taught English in South Korea in October 2010, prompting his father to fly overseas to make sure he received the medical care he needed.

Detectives with the Spokane Police Department and Washington State Patrol spoke to dozens of witnesses, including the owner of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym where Berger had been detained in a bathroom just two days before he died. He was taken in for observation but later released by doctors and given a sedative.

Bill Berger said he tried to have his son admitted, but doctors did not deem him a danger to the community.

Hours before Will Berger’s death, Bill Berger dropped his son off at Oz Fitness. Bill Berger was a little late to pick up his son, he told police, and the first thing he saw when arriving at the South Regal gym were police lights.

According to the deputies’ sworn statements, Will Berger ran across the street to the parking lot. After the first volley of stun gun shots, Berger fell to the ground but popped up and removed the probes from his chest. Cellphone video taken at a bar across the street shows several customers laughing about the encounter and encouraging the deputies to “get him.” An ambulance arrives and blocks the view of the second round of shots, but the cellphone video captures Bill Berger walking around the ambulance to the scene.

“I said, ‘I’m his father, he’s not dangerous,’ ” Bill Berger said Friday.

Audie told deputies after the second shot Berger continued to resist, including grabbing the deputy’s stun gun and shooting it at Audie’s forehead while the neck hold was being applied.

In the ensuing struggle, Audie swore at two female paramedics trying to assist and threatened to arrest them, they told detectives.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said Audie came to him after the incident and apologized for the profanity.

“He acknowledged that his language could have been better,” Knezovich said. But the sheriff said while the profanity was not condoned, it was understandable given the violence of the scuffle.

Knezovich declined Friday to comment on the use of force pending the prosecutor’s review of the case.

After backing away from the fight, the paramedics noted Berger’s face had turned blue and he wasn’t breathing. One said she looked into his eyes and “nothing was there.” The deputies immediately called for the paramedics to return and help, the women said.

Paramedics were able to re-establish a pulse during the ambulance ride, but Berger died early the next morning.

Bill Berger achieved some success this week, persuading the Port Angeles Police Department to fund crisis intervention training for next year. He dropped off a survey in Omak on his way to Spokane Valley, which the police chief already had answered and submitted on the fund’s website, willbfund.com.

The Spokane Police Department is training all its officers in crisis intervention per a court agreement in the Otto Zehm case. Specific crisis intervention training is not required by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, nor is it required under state law.

Bill Berger said mandating just a few hours of crisis intervention training for officers yearly would go a long way to achieve what he started wishing for one year ago.

“I said I was going to need two things: justice and change,” Berger said. “It doesn’t look like justice is around the corner, so at least I can bring some change.”

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